Fairy Queen Is a Dream Ticket; CLASSICAL

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), June 28, 2009 | Go to article overview

Fairy Queen Is a Dream Ticket; CLASSICAL


Byline: David Mellor

Purcell: The Fairy Queen Glyndebourne Festival Opera, East Sussex ****

Martinu: Mirandolina Garsington Festival Opera, Oxfordshire ***

Verdi: La Traviata Royal Opera House, London *****

The early death of Henry Purcell, 'The English Orpheus', was a grievous blow to European music on a par with the loss of Mozart and Schubert, and yet to some degree he is a prophet without honour in his own country.

His music for The Fairy Queen is among his most magnificent, yet I doubt many in an appreciative Glyndebourne audience would have heard any of it before. It just isn't done, and the reason for that became obvious as the evening progressed.

The Fairy Queen is almost impossible to stage. It's a semiopera, with the music coming in half a dozen self-contained pods inserted into a hack reworking, by an unknown hand, of Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream.

On CD, the music, almost two hours of it, works well. On stage it's buried in too much chat, unless an axe is taken to the play. It wasn't. Director Jonathan Kent promised this would not be an evening of 'Wagnerian length', but it was a good 30 to 45 minutes too long. Which is not to say I didn't enjoy it. Actually I loved it.

It's just that the music is so superior to the words that the latter become tedious by comparison despite a first-class speaking cast led by Desmond Barrit's gloriously over-the-top, and very Welsh, Bottom.

This production is one of the most sumptuous ever to be seen at Glyndebourne, with a gorgeous array of colourful costumes from classical times to the Fifties.

No one is better qualified to lead a distinguished musical performance of The Fairy Queen than William Christie, and after hearing him, it's no surprise he and Kent have been working on the piece for two years.

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment play superbly in music one can no longer imagine done on modern instruments. Christie's young, goodlooking cast serve him well, even if some don't really have, as yet, much individuality. Soprano Lucy Crowe stood out, as did the bass, Andrew FosterWilliams, who, with Robert Burt, displayed a winning comic touch in the cross-dress-ing Dialogue Between Coridon And Mopsa, an earthy duet that brought the house down.

The Fairy Queen bubbles with life, and the vulgarity that lurks only just beneath the surface adds to the joys of some wonderful music by a great composer who never lost the common touch.

Not only is it the 350th anniversary of Purcell's birth this year, but also the 50th anniversary of the death of the Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu. An event I was only too happy to treat with what one-time Labour grandee George Brown once called 'a complete ignoral', because hitherto I haven't enjoyed any of his music.

But since Garsington was bold enough to offer a belated British premiere of his comic opera, Mirandolina, first put on just three months before his death, I thought I should go along. …

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